I was lost and coping by adopting the goals of others
Last year I wrote a post called "Almost everyone I know is lost about what they want (and is coping by adopting the goals of others)". This was obviously wrong: How could I know that? So I deleted most of the post when I realized that.
I know now that I was just trying to say that I felt like that. I still want that post to exist though, so I've rewritten it from this truer perspective:
I'm lost about what I want and coping by adopting the goals of others
[Below is not how I feel in the present, but how I know I felt in 2022 August.]
This is going to be a bit of a ramble for now.
I notice that I have no idea what I want. I've spent a lot of time trying to look away from this fact, but ever since I quit my job and renounced the kind of work I was doing it's been hard to miss. I haven't done much in the last few months, and there hasn't been much that I wanted to do.
Related: Sometimes I notice myself wondering stuff along the lines of "What can I do to please that person (so that I can get that resource that they gatekeep)?", "How do I get this person to do the thing that I want them to do?", and "Do they think I'm doing the right thing?" I don't like being in such a validation-seeking mindset, though. It feels empty, and it also makes me anxious.
I suppose it's no surprise that this state of mind will create anxiety: I'm trying to fit into someone else's value system!— I've appointed someone else as the judge of my success. Instead of watching only my feelings to know whether I'm on the right track, I’m constantly, impossibly guessing what's going on in others’ heads!
I'd much prefer to be in the frame of "How do *I* feel about the thing that I did?", "How does it fit into my value system?", and "Do I think I'm doing the right thing?". I'd much rather be in touch with what I want. I’d much rather accept my own goals, and feel safe enough to disregard the goals that I've picked up from others. Then it wouldn't matter what I think that anyone else thinks about me.
But I'm not sure how to get there. I feel like I don't… have? allow myself to have?… the safety to be responsible for my own goals. And, in this case, what other direction of choice is there for me to use in making decisions in my life except to fall back on validation-seeking mode?
I know it's perilous though. Someone else's ideal me is not my ideal me. And other people will invariably shape the incentive landscape to nudge me towards who they want me to be. And it will be extrinsically rewarding for me to follow those incentive gradients. When I don't know who I want to be, what else is there for me to do? So I follow the gradient of prestige or money or whatever.
At my university it seemed like many, many of my peers were tech-job-maxing, and seemingly also for uninteresting reasons (money-maxing?). And while I respect this more now than I did then, I still don't find it inspiring.
Pipeline: “I have no idea what I want to do, so I might as well accumulate a lot of resources, money, and status until I do.”
But I don't want to do that! Surely there are more interesting paths??
I know that relying on the outside world for validation that I'm on the right path will lead to all sorts of problems. Feedback from others— like that's given by all gradients of extrinsic motivation— cannot help me figure out what I want. ("One cannot 'gradient descent' from finite play to infinite play".)
For example, it’s not going to help me figure out how to be good friend, parent, or partner:
Even if I'm rightfully asserting my expectations of those around me, others will still call me an asshole.
Even if I do parenting 'right', my kids are still going to tell me off some number of times.
And if I do everything my partner says they want me to do, I will lose both my path and my partner!
I'd be all ears to get aligned feedback on these topics! But it doesn't exist!
So I can't decide how to grow by merely taking feedback from others. At least, not forever. Not anymore. So where do I go next?
Well, can't I just be my own person? Can't I just take responsibility for my own goals? Can't I just honor my intrinsic motivations?
When I left my job earlier this year (it was my first full-time job), my attention immediately jumped towards finding similar work at similar organizations. This is despite the fact that I knew that I didn't like that kind of work, and therefore I probably wouldn't like those jobs either! But I didn't at all know what I wanted, and I also didn't know what else to do with myself, so I defaulted to doing the thing that I thought others would want me to do. And even though I knew I probably wouldn't like the other jobs, I still sought them out and only narrowly decided not to take one!
(Instead, I was incredibly fortunate to have both caring friends who nudged me down a different path, and the time to follow that path.)
Years ago I read a book called The Way of the Superior Man, which details this one guy's take on masculinity, femininity, and how they interact. The first time I read the book I took lengthy, detailed, object-level-pickup-artistry-esque notes. (Notice the validation-seekingness!)
I reread the beginning of the book a few months ago, though, and I realized that the first 15 chapters were entirely repetitive of:
you have strong internal senses/feelings/intuitions; and
you will feel better the more you listen to them
and that was it! The first fifteen chapters are just the first fifteen natural consequences of paying close attention to your internal senses in the context of masculinity. Nevermind the specific prescriptions of what to do in specific situations, nevermind trying to predict what actions other people want me to take so they'll like me more— instead it was essentially "just feel what's already there inside you, and the rest will come naturally".
But if it were that easy then I wouldn't have gotten stuck now would I. Somehow it feels unsafe to accept responsibility for my wants/goals and to be aware of what I might and might not want. So instead I find myself dissociating from my feelings and intrinsic motivations. Very interesting! (But why?? I don't know.)
Hm, the volume is way cranked up on extrinsic motivations from the outside world (perhaps to cover for their lack of satiety?), so it seems like it would be advantageous to get away from those for a bit to become receptive to my subtler internal senses once again. (Man, I need to get out of the Bay Area.)
I think it’s helped so far to deliberately decide to 'do nothing' for a while. I moved somewhere quiet, declined (almost) all opportunities, and spent the plurality of my attention in May and June the shedding goals and value systems that I had picked up from elsewhere. (Or rather: I put myself in a position where I felt safe enough to question them and that happened naturally.) And, after some July obligations, I am returning to this in the present.
To be clear: I'm not requiring that I have a grand purpose, or a big plan, or everything figured out. I just want to trust in my intuitions, to have more access to knowing what feels interesting to me and what doesn't, and to have less self-deception about when I'm merely climbing gradients of extrinsic motivation.
So that's my ramble.
I can't decide how to grow by merely taking feedback from others.
I'm worried that I’m using feedback, goals, and value systems from others as a way to cope with feeling my own intrinsic motivations and what I want.
And I'd rather rely on how I actually feel to make decisions, but this is scary for some reason? I'm not sure what to do about that.
Back to the present, 2023 March.
But this all feels resolved to me now:
The thing I wanted to do was exactly figuring out what was up with me.
This was also deeply tied to my first depression of 2022, which I was at the height of when I published the original version of this post.
Nicely written. Thanks for writing.
While reading I had the sudden premonition of some philosophy major in the year 2200 saying that "they've been reading a lot of Lakin recently."
You should write a book ;)